Early Childhood Stimulation

Early childhood stimulation programs implemented at home can contribute to children’s cognitive and socio-emotional development, ultimately enabling them to improve on a number of future life outcomes.

Trained health aide and mother read to young child in Jamaica | Photo courtesy of Development Media International

This page summarizes J-PAL's policy bulletin on the impact of early childhood stimulation programs, "Early Childhood Development for Lifelong Learning."

From conception to five years of age, early childhood is an extremely important period for cognitive and psychosocial development. Young children’s minds are still learning how to learn, and simple play activities that stimulate the brain through all the senses can help improve their ability to think, communicate, and connect with others.

Children in developing countries may have the most to gain from policy interventions that promote early childhood stimulation. Poverty can limit parents’ ability to spend time and money to play with, feed, and educate their children, resulting in a less stimulating home environment. Children in poor households may thus start life at a disadvantage and can fall further behind their more advantaged peers throughout life. To support parents in providing children with more stimulating home environments as well as to address the related risk factors of poverty and poor nutrition, policymakers are increasingly demanding integrated and scalable early childhood development programs.

A growing body of randomized evaluations has rigorously evaluated stimulation and nutrition interventions, and tested their separate and combined impacts. Two studies, in particular, provide actionable lessons for early childhood stimulation programs. Longer-term findings from a small and carefully designed intervention in Jamaica provided a proof of concept for a more recent cost-effective program in Colombia implemented at scale.

Key Results

Home environment effects

Weekly home visits promoting psychosocial stimulation changed the way parents interacted with their children and shaped their home environments.

Researchers in Jamaica used a checklist to assess children's home environments. Here are some examples of what they might have looked for:

Infographic illustrating examples of home environment indicators: organization of home environment and schedule, emotional sensitivity, play materials, etc

Cognitive effects

Children in the psychosocial stimulation group exhibited, on average, immediate and sustained heightened cognitive ability in both Jamaica and Colombia.

Schooling effects

In Jamaica (where researchers have conducted longer-term follow-ups), children in the stimulation group improved their reading abilities, were half as likely to drop out, and ultimately attended more years of school.

Job market effects

As they entered into full-time jobs, 22-year-old stimulation group members in Jamaica earned around 25 percent more than those in the comparison group.

Socioemotional effects

Psychosocial stimulation may result in less depression and social inhibition up to 20 years later in participants’ lives.

Physical effects

In general, early childhood stimulation had little effect on children’s physical development.

Policy Lessons

Psychosocial stimulation is an effective approach to help children achieve their full developmental potential.

The studies featured in this bulletin provide a compelling evidence base for the positive impacts of early childhood stimulation. Around 100 hours or less of community leader home visits with parents and children increased stimulation and improved children’s cognitive abilities. Longer-term evidence from the Jamaica study demonstrates that these effects can persist and convert into improved outcomes later in life, including in school, employment, and earnings.

Bar chart showing gains from birth-22 in home environment, anthropometric, cognitive ability, schooling, socioemotional skills, and earnings

Interventions promoting early childhood stimulation can be cost-effective and scalable, particularly when incorporated into existing programs.

In Colombia, researchers took a light-touch approach by capitalizing on the pre-existing structure of a government-run conditional cash transfer program that already had community-elected leaders and enrolled households. This infrastructure allowed researchers to evaluate an early childhood program that mimicked the Jamaica intervention, while simultaneously testing the model at scale. Similarly positive results to those in Jamaica indicate that such interventions can cost-effectively achieve strong positive impacts on child well-being.